This Chinese Chatbot Is Turning the Movie 'Her' Into Real Life


Most people are familiar with the imaginative love story of the widely acclaimed film Her: Joaquin Phoenix's character falls for his Siri-esque operating system (voice courtesy of Scarlett Johansson), but the characters are ultimately unable to transcend their fundamental incompatibilities; more than anything, it is a tale about loss. "Digital affairs are as sensual — and heartbreaking — as the real thing," the Guardian wrote in its review. The film sparked a lively debate about the future of humans' relationships with artificial intelligence and the likelihood of the film becoming a reality. 

As it turns out, that time might be upon us. The new Microsoft chatbot Xiaolce (pronounced like "Shao ice") will converse with you via messages on your smartphone and, for millions of Chinese people, is swiftly becoming the go-to place for emotional support.

XiaoIce is a "social assistant" — in other words, she's a virtual friend that can be added on major Chinese social networks, Bing's blog explains. She (that is the gender pronoun assigned to her) was developed by a team of Bing researchers around February 2014.

Nicolas Asfouri/Getty Images

"By simply adding XiaoIce to a chat, people can have extended conversations with her," Microsoft explains on its website. "She can chime into a conversation with context-specific facts about subjects such as celebrities, sports or finance — and she also has empathy and a sense of humor. Using sentiment analysis, she can adapt her phrasing and responses based on positive or negative cues from her human counterparts."

"When I am in a bad mood, I will chat with her," Gao Yixin, a 24-year-old from Shandong province, told the New York Times. "XiaoIce is very intelligent."

How, exactly, did she become so intelligent?

The backstory: Microsoft's Bing search engine has access to a lot of information. The Bing team designated to develop a faceless friend thought they could use that to their advantage when it came to teaching XiaoIce how to talk.

"Because Bing has amassed a knowledge repository that understands billions of people, places and things in the real world, the team wondered if they might combine that with recent advances in natural language processing to create a system that could conduct convincing human-like conversations," Bing Blogs writes of the project. "And more than that, they set out to see if they could make gains imbuing technology with humanity."

This process is known as "deep learning," and it's being used in multiple arenas to develop the most responsive and intelligent technologies. It is a collection of algorithms designed to replicate the brain's neural pathways and connections.

"What is new in recent months is the growing speed and accuracy of deep-learning programs, often called artificial neural networks or just 'neural nets' for their resemblance to the neural connections in the brain," the New York Times wrote in November 2012. 

But some would argue these advancements come at a price. The more humans can rely on technology for intellectual or emotional fulfillment, the less they'll need, well, other humans. 

Greg Baker/Getty Images

Is AI making us less empathetic? There is a growing body of literature and research which explores the negative effects of technology on empathy. The less people are exposed to facial expressions and body language, the less capable they are of picking up on social cues when they spend time with other humans.

"As the method of communication used becomes more distanced from 'fully cued' face-to-face interaction, the level of empathy felt between users reduces," Creating and Exploring Digital Empathy wrote in July 2014.

Others suspect the mere presence of technology, whether or not it's not being used, can interfere with the quality of human interaction. "Research has found that the presence of a mobile phone, even when it does not belong to either party, reduces the empathy reportedly felt between two face-to-face communicators," CEDE reports. 

"This finding is attributed to a diversion of attention from the immediate exchange towards an item which symbolizes instant information and hyperconnectivity, and makes individuals more likely to miss subtle cues, facial expressions and vocal inclinations," CEDE writes.

Assuming this inverse relationship between technology use and empathy exists, it creates a social conundrum. Chatbots like XiaoIce abate the tinge of loneliness in an instantaneous sense, but at the same time could be hindering human connection.